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For the Birds (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"A pretty decent movie about that neighbor you try to avoid."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Sometimes the filmmakers won't let a documentary be over until it's all the way over, and that's the case with "For the Birds", whose epilogue isn't exactly long but is very much something else after the main thread is tied up. It goes on and can't help but feel like it's drifting too far from the movie you came to see. Of course, the main body of the film can be drawn out and uncomfortable itself, but it's not like you'd want a story of hoarding and self-destructive behavior to go down easy.

It starts innocently enough, with VHS footage of upstate New York resident Kathy Murphy befriending a duck she names Innes Peep. Fast forward a few years to 2020, though, and there are dozens of ducks, turkeys, and chickens in and around the small house she shares with husband Gary, and it's obviously a bad situation. The place is impossible to keep clean, many of the birds are growing sickly, Kathy almost never goes out, and though it may not be the main reason their daughter is estranged, it's not helping. A call to the local Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary brings volunteer Sheila Hyslop to visit, and she convinces Kathy to let her bring some of the birds away with her, though Kathy is not necessarily aware that they won't be coming back (even if one of her beloved turkeys wasn't so sick it didn't survive very long).

Hoarding is not necessarily an activity one associates with living things, so it's interesting to see Hyslop both casually identify Kathy's behavior as such and also be alarmed by the extent of it. What's a bit surprising is that there is never much indication as to whether any of the birds return some of Kathy's affection or seem out of sorts when rescued and placed in a new environment. It could cause a bit of a disconnect, as the movie on the one hand points out that the animal abuse is what makes this a bit worse than garden-variety hoarding but leaves that abuse a bit abstract, but never quite does. Instead, it highlights just how carelessly one-sided this situation is, and gives a fair window into the neediness that seems to be driving her. There are comments dropped that sometimes offer the beginnings of an explanation, but filmmaker Richard Miron is more interested in looking at the facts of her situation rather than trying to figure it out.

The facts of it can often result in Kathy coming off as abrasive, especially since Miron and his team don't go digging to find the broken, sympathetic person underneath, opting to let the audience experience Kathy as those who encounter her do - which, despite the framing is not all bad or pitiable; there's an earnest enthusiasm to her fondness for these birds that reminds the viewer that everybody gets excited about something. Her interactions with the people from the sanctuary are adversarial, but it's intriguing to watch Hyslop's weariness compared to the younger interns' uncertainty and disbelief. A late-arriving, grandstanding tax lawyer who takes on her case pro bono winds up hanging around for longer than what it takes the film to say what it needs about him, equal parts looking for attention and the sort of libertarian who doesn't have a second's thought for whether the freedom he's defending hurts anybody.

And there's Gary Murphy, who may be the film's most tragic figure, very much in love with his wife despite being driven to the end of his rope. Miron and his collaborators don't try to build him into something more complex than he is or spend a lot of time digging for more than one can see on his face, but they don't have to: It's easy to recognize and empathize with his wearing down and finding what he wants and needs in the film's last act even if it doesn't always sit right.

And then, after that, the film keeps going, an extended run of "what happens next" that's different enough in theme and events that it could almost be a different movie. There's an interesting moment or two in that, though, even if they feel like they've strayed from the particular story that the filmmakers started out telling. Still, covering these events gives the film the images of finality that most people making documentaries would sell a small piece of their soul for.

That main story is impressive, though, told in a way that can make one's eyes widen with alarm even though the whole thing is told with surprising empathy. The Murphys' story is small and uncomfortable and the sort of thing people sometimes make a bit of effort to overlook, but one worth the telling nonetheless.

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originally posted: 08/28/19 23:13:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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